Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Water Hoses

When I read the Dilg text, it immediately reminded me of when I taught The Secret Life of Bees to my 10th grade students. My classes were not like the author's. Mine were fairly limited in terms of multicultural-ness. The Secret Life of Bees is about a white girl who goes to live with four black women in the south during the civil rights movement. Instead of telling my students about the 60s and preparing Powerpoint after Powerpoint, I made them do the research and present to the class. Each week they had a different topic, and as small groups would go on the internet and do research, post it on a wiki, and then present to the class on Friday. I remember the day we talked about the riot in which black children were being sprayed with fire hoses. Each class was the same. The group would present the topic, tell what happened, show the pictures and finish, waiting for me to ask them questions or add to their topic. I could tell no one thought this was a big deal, not because they wouldn't be outraged if it happened today, but because they just did not understand what it meant. They did not have that perspective since they were so far removed from the situation.

To fix this I asked the group to show the pictures again. I told the students to study the pictures and tell me how threatening or violent the people in the pictures seemed, what their facial expressions looked like and what their body language said. After a few stock answers I finally asked the class if they knew how powerful a fire hose was. I asked if they understood how painful getting hit with a fire hose was. One girl said her dad was worked for the fire department and said that it's really dangerous because it can actually tear your skin away. Finally, I started to see some students understand. I asked the group to tell the class what the students were doing to cause the fire hoses. I then asked how it would make them feel if they were the ones in those pictures, and finally how they thought the people in the pictures would feel, and people fighting for the same cause would feel. I asked why such measures would be used. After constant prodding, they finally started to get it and I could tell the images were starting to greatly disturb a few of the students. But it wasn't easy.

This wasn't a continuous and natural discussion through the rest of the unit for my students. They did not have that tension in the class without purposefully putting it there. It was something I had to teach them to do. By the final topics, they were picking up on asking these questions in their own research, but just barely. Their brains, I don't think, were developed enough to place themselves in such situations to fully comprehend, nor were they ever taught to look so critically at something. I sensed these both earlier when we studied the Harlem Renaissance. It wasn't a matter of experiencing the tension. The tension was not being recognized in my classes because they did not have the personal history of cultural tension yet, at least not in terms of the civil rights. To them, that was history (I know this because I asked them). It was something that was studied from a distance and not something that they thought about on a personal level, because, as one student pointed out, racism is in the past. They were the typical American white kids that felt that they did not have any culturally independent value (because in many ways white Americans are raised to believe that they have both no culture and are not part of the word "multiculture"). They were not aware of their influence on other cultures, and they weren't aware of other cultures' influence on them. I don't think it's getting the students to discuss their own history that's a problem for schools like the one I taught at. Rather, it is the cold fact that they are not taught that they have a culture and are not exposed to understanding what it means to be multicultural.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading about the experience you had pushing your students to empathy with the fire hose pictures. Like you noted, it wasn’t easy. But you got there. The danger with some of the students like those in your student teaching is that they tend to be pretty darn good at “doing school,” and all too often that does NOT mean looking at things critically, in depth, etc. I don’t blame the students for that shortcoming. Like you said, whiteness is invisible for many white students, and that is not their fault. The difficulty is helping them to see their own culture without just making them feel guilty for being a part of a dominant group. This is something we’ll continue to read about next week! Thanks for sharing this experience.